Theater review: 'Grant & Twain' misses the mark
In one of the most dynamic scenes in Salt Lake Acting Company's world-premiere production of Elizabeth Diggs' "Grant & Twain," Mark Twain (Morgan Lund) confronts historian Adam Badeau (David Spencer), who is helping former President Ulysses S. Grant (Marshall Bell) compile his memoirs.
Twain accuses Badeau of exploiting Grant and trying to take advantage of his fame and the money he will make from publishing the memoirs. The exchange has ironic overtones because, in a more subtle way, Twain is also exploiting Grant. Sparks fly as the two go at each other, and the stage sizzles with electricity.
"Grant & Twain" needs a lot more scenes like this one. The play tells an intriguing historical account about the relationship between the two people Twain describes as the most famous man of his time and its most famous writer. Twain encounters Grant when the Civil War hero is at a low point. He has been swindled and is penniless. His only chance to save himself is writing an article on his experiences at Shiloh for Century Magazine in hopes of expanding it into a memoir.
But Grant has no confidence in himself as a writer. As Twain puts it, he "suffers from a tragic flaw in a hero modesty." Twain sets out to "save him from the delusion he is ordinary" and get him to "embrace [his] own greatness." In the process, Twain plans to publish the memoirs and enhance his own reputation.
Twain has no problem with confidence. In the play's opening salvo, he accosts the audience: "I hope you know who I am." Lund takes full advantage of the opportunity the character offers for showmanship: He blusters and swaggers like the whirlwind Grant's wife, Julia (Kathryn Atwood), describes, injecting a welcome shot of adrenaline into every scene he is in.
"Grant & Twain's" first problem is that good history doesn't necessarily translate into good theater. Diggs doesn't find enough ways to energize the story and make it dramatic. As a result, the play is talky and often flat. She incorporates flashbacks from the Civil War battles Grant is writing about to provide variety and momentum, but they often act like distractions because they don't seem well integrated.
That may largely be due to this production's second major problem: Bell's lethargic, self-conscious portrayal of Grant. Bell grasps Grant's unassuming, straightforward demeanor, but his performance never expands beyond that level. Whether he is reminiscing with his wife about their devoted marriage, struggling with his encroaching cancer or dealing with the outspoken Union soldier Ingersoll (Ryon Sharette) in the flashbacks, Bell's performance remains stuck on the same note. The other actors must constantly buoy him up and infuse energy into their scenes with him.
The supporting cast rises admirably to that challenge. Atwood brings passion and compassion to her portrait of Julia, and David Spencer alternates easily between pedantic and duplicitous as the hypocritical Badeau. Sharette creates a blunt and patriotic Ingersoll, and Brien K. Jones is intuitive and loyal as Grant's servant/companion, Harrison.
Director Keven Myhre struggles valiantly to keep the play's pace moving, and unobtrusive screens keep us informed of the time and place of the flashbacks, but the production could make more use of them to propel and flesh out the story.
History buffs will likely find "Grant & Twain" informative, but the play falls short as theater. Grant and Twain are engrossing characters; neither play nor production takes advantage of their potential.
Although Grant and Twain are larger-than-life historical characters, Elizabeth Diggs' play and SLAC's production fall short in exploring their dramatic potential.
When • Reviewed on Feb. 7; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through March 2
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 West 500 North, Salt Lake City
Running time • Two and a quarter hours (including an intermission)
Tickets • $15 to $42 with discounts for students, seniors and those under 30. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for tickets and information.